Tosca: A Political Thriller with Great Music, a Love Story, Sexual Harassment, Torture, Female Revenge, and the Lessons of Revolution

Elena Stikhina as Tosca and Daniel Sutin as Scarpia in the Boston Lyric Opera production of “Tosca”

“Tosca,” as many have observed, has everything associated with grand opera: love, jealous, murder, betrayal, revenge. Oh, and great music. It may be worth pointing out that these qualities are also found in many of most popular forms of entertainment. The movies we see, the serious TV ‘novels’ we follow on Netflix or the networks all depend on — sexual attraction, violence, betrayal, secrets, conspiracies, vengeance, war, tragedy, heroism, a range of characters both worthy and despicable. This is just another list of the entertainment qualities we find in Puccini’s great opera “Tosca.”

And it’s also another way of saying that while opera is entertainment, musical theater is still very much theater, and theater has played an important part in civilization — it’s the art form that teaches community values to the community — since ancient Athens. World class cities have great theater; they also have opera.

“Tosca” is currently being given a full-bore production by the Boston Lyric Opera, giving me a rare opportunity to enjoy a great performance in a suitably old-fashioned opera house. It also gave me something to think about later, the historical lynch pin for the opera’s plot. Great works of art often find their roots in fable, myth, romantic tales, or realistic depictions of contemporary life (as in the fiction of Tolstoy, Austen, or Hugo), but Tosca is grounded in a particular moment of European history: Rome, in 1800, just as the great battle of Marengo, a crucial, consequential event for all of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars is taking place in the north of Italy.

In the Rome where our opera’s characters are engaged in life, art, power, and the struggle for human happiness, the forces of the Roman church and state status-quo are rooting for Napoleon’s defeat. The forces of liberty and modernity for his victory.

Blogging for the Boston Lyric Opera, Laura Stanfield Prichard describes ‘Tosca’ this way:
 “A tempestuous tale of seduction, cruelty, and deception, this opera presents a fierce battle of wills set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars.” 
 Some commentators have described its plot as “a political thriller.”

Puccini based his work on an 1889 play by Victorien Sardou, whose surgeon grandfather served in Napoleon’s army in Italy. While the action on stage takes place within Rome and not on a northern Italian battlefield, the history of the Napoleonic era is all over this play.

In the opera’s first scene an escaping political prisoner, Angelotti, re-introduces himself to a onetime supporter, the painter Cavaradossi, as the former premier “of the short-lived Republic of Rome.” Angelotti has just escaped from the prison where the reactionary government that overthrew his republican government put him. The word ‘republican’ has nothing to do here with the American political party of that name and everything to do with the French Revolution, which deposed the country’s monarch and established a new social order based on the equality and rights of its members. This was, people say today, really big. A huge break with the past. Inspired in part by the American Revolution, the French Revolution of 1789 had a world-shaking impact on its Old World neighbors.

All the crowns of Europe worried about the French example of popular revolution. The English, wed to their own version of limited monarchy, formed an alliance with the kingdoms on France’s borders to reverse the Revolution and restore the monarchy there. But one of the French Republic’s most successful institutions was the Army of the Republic, a patriotic citizens’ army rather than the traditional army of mercenaries and the desperately poor. France’s military victories soon established the republic as the most powerful force in Europe. Its victories included the overthrow of many of fragmented Italy’s kingdoms and the creation of new republican states, including the Republic of Rome. (The French also took a captive Pope to Paris.) The new Roman Republic promptly absorbed the neighboring Papal States and claimed authority over a fair-sized chunk of the middle of the Italian peninsula.
 But when the French army withdrew from Italy, most of these new regimes lacked enough local support to stay in power. In Rome an invasion from Naples overthrew the ‘short-lived’ republic, put the republican leaders like Angelotti in jail, and enlisted provincial bullies such as Tosca’s arch-villain Scarpia to run the city as a police state. Torture, show trials, political executions, extortion, corruption. We’re familiar with this apparatus from the bad times and places of the 20th and 21st century. 
 An anxious status quo continued in the still fragmented Italian peninsula until the superpowers of the day revved up another war. Led by England once again, an alliance of Old Regimes formed in the late 1790s to stamp out the spread of republican, egalitarian ideas.

By this point, however, the second act of the Revolution was under way, and France was increasingly relying on the charismatic general and man of the hour, Napoleon. Napoleon met the threat of the Second Alliance (as historians call it) against France by re-assuming command of the French Army of Italy (such a charmingly geographical name) and carried the war to the Austrians in the Alpine region.

This moment of historical crises first intrudes on “Tosca” near the end of the first attack, when villainous Scarpia, his flunkies, and his allies in the reactionary Catholic Church receive word of a great Austrian victory over Napoleon in the Italian . In fact ‘early reports’ from the battlefield would have given the edge to the Austrians. Napoleon had divided his army, based on false reports of enemy intentions from a double agent, and faced the Austrian attack with only a part of his forces. His commanders were able to give ground slowly and avoid a rout until later in the day when the rest of the French army arrived, positioned on the enemy’s flanks. Under their unexpected attacks, the Austrians broke and fled. 
 A true report of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo arrives in the second act of the opera, causing the now imprisoned Cavaradossi to rejoice. Scarpia’s agenda now is not only to execute the romantic painter for his revolutionary ideals, but to use Tosca’s desire to save her lover to turn her into one of his sexual ‘conquests.’ Scarpia himself uses this word; it jibes with Napoleon’s reputation as a conqueror. Though Napoleon’s appeal to idealists such as Cavaradossi and Beethoven lay in their belief in him as a liberator of nations from the chains of the ancient regime. When Cavaradossi hears the report of victory in the presence of his tormentor, hid defiance seems to promise that whatever happens to him, revolutionary justice will win in the end.

But life is more complicated than the believers in the French Revolution, or the protectors of king and Pope, wish it to be. The Battle of Marengo actually had bigger short-term consequences for Napoleon and France than it did for Rome. The decisive victory pushed Napoleon’s popularity at home to the point where as the savior of the nation he could do no wrong. That dangerous idolatry led him a few years later to crown himself as Emperor. Beethoven, hearing the news, crossed out the dedication on his great symphony, The Eroica, and prophesied that Napoleon would end up as a tyrant. 
 Rome and the Papal States would see various regimes for more than half a century until they became part of the unified Italian Republic in 1870.

Great works of art such as “Tosca” depict both individual tragedy and the ultimate triumph of forces greater than individuals — love, heroism, and the arc of history. The only thing missing from the BLO’s “Tosca” was a curtain call for the brutal sexual abuser Scarpia wearing a Trump mask.